1 July 2018

Albania - Betwixt and Between

Sarande, at the south end of the Albanian Riviera, is a pleasant town with an oceanside promenade.  Sarande was our first port in Albania and, hence, our clearing in port.  Albanian shipping rules have not yet adjusted to the to-ings and fro-ings on pleasure yachts.  Hence, every port requires that a yacht uses a shipping agent of the same variety that cargo, cruise liners, and tankers use along with a fee for the agent - about 60 Euros - a fee for the dock and a fee for the harbour.  It all adds up.  The service of the agent, though, was exemplary.  She offered to get us a SIM card, a courtesy flag and probably would have got us a take-out meal - all for an additional fee but with a very big smile.
Albania is an interesting place.  It seems to be caught between powerful remnants of the previous communist regime and an attempt to modernize and westernize in key locations for the benefit of tourists and some industry.

We took a scooter out for a day from Sarande.  It was wonderful, scooting through the countryside.  Little traffic, pretty decent roads, through wide valleys and narrow gorges.  The water in the river was incredibly clear giving an aquamarine hue to whatever lay beneath.  I commented so often that Peter, driving the scooter, got a bit tired of it.
We biked several times from the marina in Orikum at the north end of the Riviera.  The main roads were good and relatively newly paved but any "road" off the main was gravel or ruts.  Peter's road bike tires were challenged.

We were happy to finally get back on our bikes even with the rough terrain.

...and the deep sand on steep hills from the river bed.  

And then there was the car ferry/platform from the Butrint UNESCO site running on cables across the river making the upper reaches unnavigable.  
The country itself is mountainous with incredibly steep bare and rocky slopes on which cultivation would be impossible and narrow gorges with beautiful, clear, aquamarine rivers opening to wide agrarian valleys with a patchwork of small fields.  Homes in the valley villages are spread out with each having it's own vegetable garden, olive trees and orchard.
Vlore is the "gateway of the riviera.  A huge amount of investment had been allocated to landscaping a lovely waterfront lined with innumerable cafes and restaurants.  A road, wide walking path, bike lanes and a second walking promenade bordered it with planted pines and palms interspaced.  Unfortunately, the restaurants and beach chairs were largely empty.  

To date, we have spent our time on the south coast, "The Albanian Riviera".  The name is a bit of a stretch but the attempt to make a seaside tourist destination is clear by the investment in long, wide promenades, restaurants, bars, groomed beaches with new plantings of trees.  However, the beach chairs, of which their are thousands, are mainly empty.  The riviera is bordered by two cities but the 60 miles of coast between is completely inaccessible because of the steep mountains which plummet directly into the sea.  It makes for a beautiful cruise up the coast but an impossible coast to develop with a house, let alone a resort or hotel.  Unfortunately for cruisers it is also a straight leeshore and lacks any sheltering bays or harbours.
A bunker in the middle of Sarande.  A couple of elderly ladies in black with lovely white hair peeking out from under their black kerchiefs watched us with solemn faces as we looked inside and photographed this symbol of their lives from decades past.

The one marina in Albania, Marina di Orikum was in a large bay, headed by the city of Vlore and obviously considered an important centre by the previous communist government.  The mouth of the bay was lined with bunkers and pillboxes.  

A message on our chart warned of dangers and uncharted or changes to the chart in Albanian waters.  The chart delineates the entire coast line as unanchorable.  Mines from the communist regime have been removed from the surface but anchoring and fishing is still not considered safe.

The only sign of life on the shoreline are bunkers built by the paranoid communist regime - an incredible 700,000 in all - to protect them from imminent attack.  From the people we have been able to talk to and the observations we have made, the feelings around the changes in the country are mixed.  The young embrace the changes.  A young woman told us that during the communist regime, her mother's uncle was imprisoned for seven years for owning a map of Europe.  Her mother had to enter this information on any application she made for graduate school or employment. The entire family was stigmatized. This young woman described the regime as cruel and harsh and the people were relieved to have left it.
Some enterprising business person had set up a great temporary bar on the beach in Sarande with a big screen to watch the World Cup.  We could tell from Milly anchored nearby when a Baltic country had scored.

A party boat for a 40th birthday party of one of these women provided some lively entertainment .  We were moored right across the dock and Peter got some good shots!

We visited the Nureliari family vineyard close to Berat, a newly beautifully renovated vineyard/winery/soon-to-be- hotel which the young owner proudly showed us.  He hosted us with five tastings and a plate of veggies, cheese and bread, grown and made by his mother.

If you are ever in Albania, pay a visit to this hospitable winery.

The enterprising are establishing businesses in a big way.  One very young guy who is running his family's recently beautifully renovated winery told Peter that he wants Albania to join the EU so it is easier to do business and travel.  His father who runs the associated vineyard agrees but is suspicious of the changes and his grandfather does not like them.
Butrint, an ancient port city, and scoot along the coast from Sarande is a UNESCO site, discovered in 1928.  It dates back to 8th C BC and was impacted on by Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilizations.  In the 4th C B.C. it became a cult centre dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine - above is the chapel to him where worshippers brought gifts with the hope of being cured.

Next to the chapel is the amphitheatre was modified by the Romans in the first century B.C.  The city thrived during Roman occupation with temples, forums, fountains, baths and villas built.  

A well with smooth and glossy ridges worn in the marble door from people hauling up their buckets of water with ropes - we surmised anyway.

Constructed during the 6th century, the baptistery's floor is mosaic but covered to safe it from the weather.  It is revealed only once a year so people can admire it.

The basilica, 6th century 

Our own observations agree.  English is now taught in schools and we can communicate with the young business operators quite easily whereas the older people are fluent in Russian.  On our bike rides through the countryside, the young kids excitedly come to the roadside to wave and yell, "hi" when they see us whereas the older adults do not smile but look at us with what we perceive as suspicion.  Although a bit off putting this reaction makes sense.  Albania was completely cut off from the world for decades.  No one in to tour or do business and no one out.  Tourists, although not numerous, are now coming with all the accompanying baggage, demands and industry that follows, both beneficial and not.  Life is changing and change is not always easy to reconcile or perceive as positive.  A whole way of life, even if hard, is being lost.
Another UNESCO site, this time visited by taxi hire on a day trip with five other cruisers from the marina.   Berac is a hilltop fortress set in a wide valley and surrounded by mountains and hills.  People still live within the ancient walls and boys still play soccer in the field.

Electricity poles and satellite dishes tell the tale of our modern not so beautiful period mixed with the lovely old stone buildings of another time.

A lovely church....

looking out over a stupendous view

The houses of those who still live in the fortress.  Unfortunately, our view was marred by clouds that brought day long rain just as we finished the outdoor part of our tour.

Albania is full of genuine free-ranging hens.  They accompanied us everywhere.  Not sure what these guys could find on the rooftop.  Perhaps just enjoying the view like everyone else.

The minaret tower along with the church demonstrated the stated acceptance of two religions in this walled community.

A view of the old town built along the river at the foot of the fortress.  It is nicknamed the city of a thousand windows.

The country is not geared to yachts yet - there is only one marina in the whole country.  Power outages are almost daily, internet is spotty, the marina buildings are empty for lack of investors.  But the small marina itself is full of happy cruisers all waiting for a weather window to take them  south or north.  Few stay for longer then a few days.

We have enjoyed our time here.  Albania is unique to Europe.  Much of it's charm and appeal is related to it's history and current position of being stuck between two times.  It will be interesting to see how it manages over the next years.

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